Iraq's president reignited calls for a delay of the first national elections due in three weeks when he said Tuesday that escalating violence would make it difficult to hold a proper vote. The main Sunni party has withdrawn from the election already, while other senior Iraqi officials, including the defense minister and the ambassador to the U.N., have publicly suggested a delay.
At a meeting of hundreds of Sunni figures at a large mosque in Baghdad Tuesday there were further angry calls for a postponement. This combined force is now putting the Jan. 30 election in jeopardy.
"On a logical basis, there are signs that it will be a tough call to hold the election," Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawar told Reuters. He said the U.N. should step in and decide whether it was safe to hold the vote as scheduled. Some in the Iraqi government wanted a delay but did not have the authority to arrange it, he said. Technically, only Iraq's independent election commission has the power to change the date.
"Definitely if a big chunk of the Iraqi population is deprived of participating in elections it will not result in very successful elections," Yawar said. "This election has a unique role of drafting a constitution. How can you draft a constitution unless all ethnicities, sects, religions and political ideologies are included?"
Nearly all the pressure for a delay is coming from the minority Sunni community, from which the insurgency has emerged in the past two years. Yawar is a moderate Sunni and a respected tribal leader. Sunni leaders recognize that the violence in their regions and anger at the U.S. occupation will deter their voters and leave the Sunni community perilously underrepresented in the new government. Some analysts fear the imbalance could be so serious as to propel Iraq into a civil war.
The Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni party, put forward a list of candidates but then said it was withdrawing from the election. Amar Wajil, the head of the party's political office, Tuesday endorsed Yawar's call. "If there is a delay, that will be very good news and will change a lot of things," he said. "We are not against the elections; we just want a delay, and we want these calls to come from our brothers the [Shiites], too."
But Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi is under tremendous pressure to ensure the vote goes ahead on time. The pressure comes from the U.S. administration, eager to keep to its already delayed timetable for handing over power, and from influential Shiite religious and political parties, which are certain to dominate the new government.
Bob Callahan, a U.S. Embassy spokesman, said: "We expect that there will be elections on Jan. 30 and only on Jan. 30 and that the result of those elections would be recognized and honored. That's what the law calls for."
Iraq's national security advisor, Mouwaffaq al-Rubaie, told the BBC that any delay of the election would provoke a constitutional crisis because the interim authority's mandate expires at the end of January. "If we delay it for a week or so, the country will go into bloodbath," he said. "The best insurance policy is to have the election on Jan. 30."
Shiite clerics and politicians had wanted an election last summer but agreed to put the vote off until this month. Now they are reluctant to accede to another delay, and insist the legitimacy created by an election will help lessen the insurgency. "The majority of the Iraqi people want the election on time," said Saad Jawad Qandil, head of the political bureau of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the leading Shiite parties. "We believe we have all this escalation in violence because we have postponed the elections the first time."
There are signs of compromise emerging. Qandil said the Shiite parties want to include Sunni politicians in the new government, regardless of how small a portion of the vote they win. "The transitional government must be a coalition government," he said.
Last week Iraq's U.N. ambassador, Samir Sumaidaie, suggested leaving some seats vacant for underrepresented provinces and imposing a two- or three-week delay of the election. "The electoral process is subject to an impractically tight schedule," he wrote in the Washington Post. "While we must demonstrate commitment to the political process, we must not be enslaved by it."